Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Grand Canyon of the Verdon.

One morning, about three weeks in to our Alpine holiday, after enjoying the aqua blue waters of the Soča in Slovenia, the coffee of Itlay and the croissants and bread of France, we decided to make some calls and see if we could get the Verdon gorge done. We had all heard so much about it and really wanted to make it happen. It was the usual lazy morning, until the rafting company down in Castellan gave us the go ahead -it would be releasing the next day. Then it was all systems go. After a quick trip into Briançon to stock up on supplies (drybags, fruit and nut mix, chocolate…) and hit the road bound for the Gorges du Verdon.

The journey there was eventful in itself. The road we (ok Matt and I) had chosen ended up taking us along the Col d’Allors, one of the skinniest, windiest and scary roads of all time. With a rather queezy Matt looking out over the shear drops and squeeming noises coming from the driver accompanied by rounds of very nervous laughter we were all very happy to have finally seen the end of it. 
But we wouldn't have found this little gem of a town had it not been for the horrible road!  

We arrived in Castellane rather late and found ourselves in the oddest of scenarios, it seems all the local hippies were out dancing, there was a band, and lots of hemp and felt skirts... Next morning we woke with the sun, packed up camp and headed back into town to go quiz the rafting company on levels for the next day to see if we could sleep in there tonight or if we had to do it all in one day. Matt –our linguist, came back rather dejected by the nasty rude rafting man who had said we couldn’t do it and would be fools to even try. This is because there had been large floods a month or so prior and no one had been down the gorge since and as such there was no knowing the extent to the wood that may be blocking our path. However, cutting a long story short, we came across a local kayaker who told us he had friends that had done it 2 weeks prior and it was good to go (with a few extra portages).
So, we were back on! Excitement levels rose as we were driving to the Carajuan Bridge and we packed out boats with the essentials (Sleeping things, some beaufort and a bottle of Jamesons).

A gift from some wonderful Irish guys we had met in Slovenia and been with since then .

Team Photo, Matt, Nathan, Nick, Tom and Debs. All sweltering in our drysuits...

Nick and Debs chillin' on the Pre-Canyon
 We had put on early to avoid a massive walk in and to get used to our laden boats on the easy stuff. Then we reached the beginning of the gorge and the get out for the rafts, now it was really starting. The first blind corner (the first of MANY), the raft guide said it was to be run on the left, but even being told, we were still rather nervous especially after our kind kayaker had said "watch out as there really are siphons everywhere". 
The get out for the rafts. Now the siphons begin.. 

The first very ominous looking cave, I had thought it was “the Styx” home to enormous siphons. My stomach dropped when we got the signal “choo choo -all go”…of course... it wasn’t the styx.
One bonus of taking two days to run the 34km is that you don’t have to rush, so we had time to explore the tributary which at first glance doesn’t look up to much, but then… you break through the narrow gorge, through a waterfall and into paradise! The photos just don’t do it justice! The water was so turquoise! 
Nathan checking out the trib...just look at that water!

A little further up, 100 times more amazing in real life. 
After dragging ourselves away from the wonders of the Artuby (the tributary), we soon saw the footbridge that warns of the first grade 5, l'Estellie, suitably named if it is french for zigzag or right, left, right, left, riigght and then the line was not a simple down the middle.
Matt and Nick at the start of l'Estellie. Pushier than it looks. on their first left. 

The second right, Tom and Debs avoiding the large tree barring the river. 
Not long after this rapid we stopped to make camp for the night, dried out our kit and very sweaty thermals and got some pasta and cheese on the go. We had been told that the next day the dam was to be releasing between 20-26cumecs, potentially double what we had paddled that day. So we left our kayaks high up on the sandy bank where we made camp for the night in case of a sudden rise in levels. 
Thermals off first, then food. It was SO hot!.

The kitchen.

Jamesons and cards for our evenings entertainment.

Our camp up on the sandy ledge at the foot of a large, slightly overhanging cliff .

We had some fun with these shadows. 

 Next morning we rose early and grudgingly put on our drysuits and started our second day in fine fettle. Eddy hopping our way down, Nick jumping out to scout the next blind corner, then we came to 'The Styx'. Now this was the siphony cave, after a good look Nick went first and styled it, Nathan then followed and made Nick's line look even better after finding himself pinned on a rock you can't see in the photos.
Nathan on the lip of 'the Styx'. Pre pin, the nasty pinny rock is just behind that big boulder in front of him . The water was pushing you right and into it. Nick had done it so smoothly you hadn't noticed. 

Matt narrowly avoided the pin but ended up valiently fighting that hole to the right (in front of him). No one swam and no one got too close to the siphons. 
I had seen quite enough pinnage already, so decided to walk this one rather than scare my self silly as people have been lost to the Styx in the past. 
Now this is never a good sign. More evidence of the floods. Barring our way through l'Imbut. The river  dissapears underneath this massive boulder choke and you climb out of a kayak shaped hole at the other end and seal launch back in. No way would this be clear of wood. So a long and hot portage was embarked upon. A shame to have missed the rapid.

Long hot portage involving lots of ropes and climbing..

Our Lunch spot. After the grueling portage that took about an hour.
After one or two more small portages we came to 'The Curtain'. We had started to walk round when I heard whooping from Nick on the other side of the curtain, 

"It goes, it goes! It doesn't look like it does, but you have to trust me! Go left!" 

I had already portaged but passed the news onto the others who then one by one dropped round the corner, were faced with a wall of rock in front of them and nasty wood choke to the right. You only see the little entrance through the wall of rock about two meters from it. It must have been terrifying! But they all did it successfully after many shouts of 




Not too stylish, but successful non the less. 

The water gradually eased and we paddled out of the gorge up into the lake, winding our way through a mass of peddle-o's and canoes and back into civilization.
The end of the gorge. Drysuits and thermals off! 
A truly awesome trip, no photos do justice, nor words describe it adequately. Being at the heart of the gorge, away from everything, just you and your team. It was such a special thing. Multidays are so where its at! We finally did it! 

Thank you to Nick for keeping us safe, Matt Washer for the photos and the lovely people at Aqua Viva Est who sorted put us in touch with the local kayaker (who had a french name that i just cant remember!).

Photos: Matt Washer and Nick Bennett.

Words: Debs Perry.

Debs x